A $2m US lobbying effort and petitions from European legislators are piling pressure on Saudi Arabia to release a philanthropist prince jailed for two years without charges amid an intensifying royal crackdown.
The detention of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud and his father since January 2018 is seen as part of a clampdown under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that has swept up potential political rivals, individuals accused of corruption and, at times, figures posing no visible challenge to his hold on power.
In March, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, King Salman’s brother, and the monarch’s nephew Prince Mohammed bin Nayef were detained. Nayef was ousted as Crown Prince two years ago.
The clampdowns have also swept up family members of Saad Aljabri, former aide to bin Nayef, who fled to Canada.
Prince Salman is seen by many as an unlikely target; the multilingual 37-year-old, who was educated at France’s Sorbonne University, apparently espoused no political ambitions and earned the reputation of being a “walking blank check” for funding development projects in poor countries.
“This is not just an unlawful arrest,” an associate of the prince told AFP. “This is daylight kidnapping. This is a forced disappearance.”
After being detained for approximately one year in the high-security Al-Ha’ir prison near Riyadh and later in a private villa with his father Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the prince was moved to a secret detention site in March, multiple sources told AFP.
He was mysteriously returned to the villa last week to be reunited with his father, three of those sources said.
It remains unclear why he was moved to the secret site. His telephone calls to his family are monitored by Saudi intelligence, the sources said.
But his return may be a tentative sign that international pressure for his release is working. Saudi authorities did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
A delegation from the European Parliament implored Saudi authorities to release detained royals, including Prince Salman, during a visit to Riyadh in February, according to a source and an internal report of the tour seen by AFP.
“The European Parliament already asked for information about the case in a letter addressed… to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which (remains) unanswered,” Marc Tarabella, a vice chairman of the Parliament’s delegation for relations with the Arab peninsula, wrote to the European Commission.
“I would like to ask you to raise this issue… with the highest relevant authorities in Saudi Arabia appealing for Prince Salman’s release.
“I remain confident that the release would positively impact the relations of the European Parliament with Saudi Arabia,” he wrote.
Separately, leading Washington lobbyist Robert Stryk’s Sonoran Policy Group signed a $2m contract in May to advocate for the prince’s release “with the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the European Union”, according to a US justice department filing seen by AFP.
Stryk, known to have close connections with the administration of US President Donald Trump – an ally of Prince Mohammed – was recruited by Hashim Mughal, a Paris-based confidant of Prince Salman, according to the filing.
A source described Mughal, a Pakistani national, as the prince’s former financial adviser who raised $2m from his personal wealth and by tapping the influential royal’s friends.
The international effort is a gamble that could backfire in a kingdom whose authoritarian rulers are strongly averse to public criticism.
But, as private appeals to the rulers go unheeded, the campaign may be the only hope at a time when the kingdom is grappling with a coronavirus-led economic slump and unease is rising in Washington with Prince Mohammed’s aggressive policies.
‘Game of thrones’
Prince Salman is among a wave of royals detained as Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, eliminates potential rivals to amass power unseen by previous rulers.
Two adult children and a brother of Aljabri, former aide to bin Nayef, were also detained in March, with a source close to the family calling them “victims of a Saudi game of thrones”.
Aljabri, exiled in Canada, earlier attempted to get his children out of Saudi Arabia but authorities had placed them under a travel ban, the source told AFP.
Princess Basmah bint Saud, another royal perceived to be close to bin Nayef, has been jailed in Al-Ha’ir for a year, without charges, along with her daughter.
Her family lost all contact with the princess after they posted a desperate Twitter appeal for her release in April, a source has told AFP.
An unlikely rival
Prince Salman’s non-political philanthropic work makes him an unlikely rival to MBS.
What may have rankled the royal court is the prince’s meeting with Congressman Adam Schiff, a Democrat and Trump critic, just before the US presidential elections in 2016.
His associates say “nothing political” was discussed.
Schiff’s office told AFP he does not recall specifics of the discussion, but they may have talked about “Saudi Arabia generally”.
“Those who pushed for this arrest gravely misread US politics,” Kirsten Fontenrose, a former White House official responsible for policy towards Saudi Arabia and now with the Atlantic Council, told AFP.
“Jailing someone for meeting with a vocal Democrat will only make it more difficult for Trump to maintain close ties to the Saudi ruling family leading up to the US election.”